March Madness Comes to High School Hoops Is That a Good Thing?

Upstart Findlay Prep won the first edition of what ESPN hopes will be a national high school championship, but with its victory comes questions about the entire enterprise
April 12, 2009

ONE OF therequirements of playing for Findlay College Prep is a willingness to repeatedlyexplain an apparent conundrum: How can the Pilots be one of the best highschool teams in the nation when Findlay Prep isn't a high school? In thePilots' unconventional program, the players live together in a suburban LasVegas house, travel as much as some college teams, dine occasionally on theVegas strip and... oh, yes, take classes at a nearby private school, Henderson(Nev.) International School. ¶ "It can get confusing for people," sayssenior Carlos Lopez, the Pilots' 6'11" center from Lajas, Puerto Rico, anda UNLV recruit. "I tell them Findlay Prep is a team, not a school. Thenit's like, 'You don't go to school?' Yes, we go to school just like anybodyelse, but our team is not the same as our school. Like I said,confusing."

It must have beenrefreshing, then, for the Pilots to spend the weekend at the inaugural ESPNRISE National High School Invitational tournament in North Bethesda, Md., whereno one much cared whether a program outsources the school in high school orwhether it's ethical for a UNLV booster, Cliff Findlay, to bankroll such aprogram in his alma mater's backyard. The NHSI, which its organizers, ESPN andParagon Marketing Group, hope will become an annual national championshiptournament, is not an event for typical high school teams, which are made up ofplayers from the neighborhood. It's big business, with programs that recruitglobally and attract elite players who want to hone their games for Division Icollege ball, all sponsored and showcased by corporate entities looking forprogramming and profit. (Paragon Marketing, for example, bills itself as"the nation's foremost promoter of high school sports today.")

Anyone whowandered into the Hanley Center at Georgetown Prep expecting the innocence oftraditional high school hoops would have seen the ESPN cameras and all thesponsorship signs for Nike, Gatorade and the U.S. Marines, and known he was inthe wrong place. The eight-team tournament, won by Findlay Prep on Sunday,represented the NCAA tournament sensibility brought to high school, and thoughthe participants certainly considered that a positive development, othersaren't so sure.

The NationalFederation of State High School Associations has a constitutional provisionpreventing members from competing in national championships, and most stateathletic associations endorse that position. One reason for that is to avoidstretching the season interminably and to limit its intrusion on class time.(Findlay Prep's last game, for instance, was more than a month before the startof the NHSI.) "Our perspective is that a national tournament would not fallunder our educational mission," says Bob Gardner, the COO of thefederation.

Some high schoolcoaches also have concerns about the NHSI, although they hesitate to voice thempublicly for fear of alienating powerful forces such as ESPN and Nike."It's good programming for ESPN, but is it good for high school basketballas a whole?" asked one coach in attendance. "Are you going to be ableto convince your best player to stay and try for a state title when he has achance to transfer to one of these places where they get on TV and play for theESPN championship or the Nike championship? I don't want to see more of theseindependent programs popping up to skim off the best talent from the regularhigh schools."

But that's likelyto happen as long as ESPN gives those programs even more cachet by organizingevents like the NHSI. It wasn't lost on the players that the tournamentrewarded the winners by moving them up the Worldwide Leader's ladder ofnetworks—the first-round games were on ESPNU, the semifinals on ESPN2 andSunday's championship game on ESPN. Television exposure was the big prize.

The naysayersdidn't worry teams such as Findlay Prep, runner-up Oak Hill Academy (Mouth ofWilson, Va.) and Montrose Christian School (Rockville, Md.), which are notmembers of any state federation, nor ESPN, which seized upon the opportunity toshowcase some of the nation's top high school recruits—and ignored anyquestionable circumstances, describing Findlay Prep as having an enrollment of775 and never mentioning its unique arrangement with Henderson Internationalduring Sunday's broadcast. The field included three McDonald's All-Americans,including Findlay's 6'3" guard Avery Bradley, a Texas signee, and seniorsheaded to such high-profile programs as Oklahoma, Pitt and Villanova.

"We haven'tpersuaded everyone yet to become a part of this," says James Brown, seniorvice president of ESPN RISE, the network's high school sports division,"but we're going to keep working to do that. Eventually we hope to turnthis into a true national championship. We think the exposure will be good forus and good for the sport."

THE PILOTS arelikely to make regular appearances at the NHSI, since the nature of theirprogram enables them to replenish their talent easily, sometimes even duringthe season. Just three years old Findlay Prep is 65--1 over the last twoseasons under coach Michael Peck, a former UNLV video coordinator. This year'sPilots feature three Division I signees—seniors Bradley and Lopez and guardD.J. Richardson (Illinois)—as well as junior forward Tristan Thompson, who hasverbally committed to Texas. That group will lengthen the already long list ofFindlay alumni who have earned Division I scholarships, including DeAndreLiggins (Kentucky), Jorge Gutierrez (California) and Brice Massamba (UNLV).

Bradley, atransfer from Bellarmine Prep, in Tacoma, Wash., who was ranked No. 7 on theESPN RISE list of top seniors, is probably the best player Findlay Prep hasproduced. It was his brilliance at both ends of the court, with 20 points,eight boards and two steals, that propelled the Pilots (33--0) to thetournament championship, which they earned with a 74--66 victory over Oak Hill(40--1).

The Pilotsprogram is the brainchild of Las Vegas automobile magnate Cliff Findlay, aformer UNLV forward and the team's main benefactor. Findlay paid $425,000 forthe five-bedroom home that houses the eight Findlay Prep players as well asassistant coach Todd Simon and his wife, Kati, who provide the adultsupervision. Along with several other minor investors, Findlay also pays forthe team's food and travel (the Pilots logged more than 30,000 air miles andplayed in eight states this season) and contributes to the fund that pays eachplayer's $16,000 tuition at Henderson International.

Given Findlay'sstatus as a UNLV booster, it's not surprising that there are whispers inrecruiting circles that Findlay Prep players are steered toward the Runnin'Rebels. In addition to Massamba and Lopez, junior forward Godwin Okonji isconsidering signing with UNLV. "We're only a few miles away from thecampus, so obviously the UNLV coaching staff gets more of a chance to evaluateour kids," Findlay says. "But there's no one in our program who's inany way pushing players to sign with a particular school."

A college boosterproviding financial benefits to potential recruits sounds like a blatant NCAArecruiting violation, but the program hasn't run afoul of the collegebasketball authorities. "We're completely open about what we're doing,"says Findlay. "We coordinated everything with the NCAA when we were puttingthis all together to make sure we were doing everything the right way. We setit up exactly the way they told us to."

The Pilotsrepresent the latest step in the evolution of elite high school basketball: aprogram that operates completely outside the traditional high school system andmakes no pretense about its top priority—to acquire the best talent from allover the world. (Players from Canada, Mexico, Nigeria and Sweden have passedthrough Findlay Prep.) Not being sanctioned by the national federation meansthe Pilots have no academic eligibility requirements and no restrictions ontravel, transfers or practice time, as conventional high schools do.

Findlay Prepanswers to no one, which was evident in its acquisition of Thompson, along-armed leaper from Toronto, in February. Thompson began the year with St.Benedict's Prep (Newark), which lost to Oak Hill in the NHSI semifinals. Hedecided to transfer, though, after he was dismissed from the team by coach DanHurley because of a verbal altercation with Hurley during a game on Feb. 10.The incident took place on a Tuesday, and by Saturday, Thompson was a member ingood standing of Findlay Prep.

It's that freedomfrom rules that makes critics see Findlay Prep as little more than an AAU teammasquerading as a high school program. But the Pilots make no apology for howthey operate. "We're really no different from some of the prep schools inthe East that bring in very high-level players while helping them acquire aquality education," Peck says. "We're doing the same thing."

But they're doingit in a much glitzier fashion, as befits a program born near the neon of theVegas strip. Findlay Prep's website makes the team sound like every player'sfantasy of a high school program, telling prospective players that they willlive in a "near-million dollar home" with "two big-screen[televisions], all new furniture, custom extra long beds ... wireless internet,full cable TV [and] two refrigerators kept full." The sales pitch alsopromises a laptop for every player and a full complement of gear from Nike,which sponsors the program, including "shoes, sandals, running shoes,socks, warm ups, hoodies, practice gear, loose dry fits, tight dry fits,tights, and even compression shorts." If the fully stocked fridges aren'tenough, there's dinner at least once a week at one of the resort buffets on theStrip.

It's no surprise,then, that some coaches from other high school programs question Findlay Prep'sapproach. "You just wonder if we're heading in the wrong direction,"says Hurley's father, Bob, who has coached at St. Anthony's in Jersey City for37 years. "When you've got a kid from public housing and you're trying topush him to do the right thing even if it means things are tough at times, whatdo you say to him when he sees an easier way to do it, a way where everythingis given to you for free?"

But the FindlayPrep players will tell you it's not quite free, that in exchange for all theperks they have to be serious students and perform their household duties."The basketball and the travel are fun," says Richardson, "butcleaning the bathrooms isn't."

"We stressdiscipline in the house, in the classroom and on the court," says Simon."We don't claim to be like the public school down the street. But we're nota fly-by-night school that's just putting kids on the court without regard fortheir education. Every kid who's finished here has been academically eligibleto play in college. If there could be 50 more programs like ours, I think thesystem would be so much better off."

Would 50 moreFindlay Preps really be good for high school basketball? Given the directionthat television and corporate forces are pushing the game, like it or not, wemay soon find out.

Findlay Prep's website promises players they will livein "a NEAR-MILLION DOLLAR HOUSE," with "wireless internet, fullcable TV [and] two refrigerators kept full."

"We're COMPLETELY OPEN about what we'redoing," says Findlay, a UNLV booster. "We coordinated everything withthe NCAA when we were putting this all together."



Kevin Armstrong looks at where the top undecided prospects, including Oak Hillguard Lamont Jones, might be headed.


PHOTOPhotograph by Damian StrohmeyerSKY PILOT Thompson (12), who suited up for Findlay 10 days after being dismissed by another team, had 12 points in the final. PHOTOPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer[See caption above] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWELL-STOCKED (From left) Rasham Suarez, Lopez, Cory Joseph, Issiah Grayson, Richardson, Bradley, Okonji and Thompson all live together under one roof. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Damian StrohmeyerNET GAIN Peck, a former video coordinator on the UNLV staff, has a 65--1 record in the last two seasons coaching Findlay Prep. PHOTOPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer[See caption above]